Undulating. That is the summary of my review for the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of Koichi Sugiyama’s work released as a box set: the Symphonic Suite Dragon Quest Scene-Separated I~IX (yet another testimony of how much more beautiful music can be than words). All capital letters aside, this behemoth of musical fortitude simultaneously excites and soothes. Rather than enjoy the straight chords that most other RPG soundtracks offer, the ever-wavy whimsy of this entire catalogue takes physical form as I sit, emulating the bouncy persistence of Sugiyama’s work in stringy flight. Whether a fan of Dragon Quest III’s Rondo, the always-popular Heavenly Flight, or the upbeat siren song of slot machines and monster battle gambling, this box set not only does justice to each and every piece, but excels expectations.
Though, while the music is assuredly phenomenal, is this box set for you? That is, what of the organization of the tracks? As the name implies, this is a “scene-separated” set of music. Of course, how does one organize this intimidating library of music? While some may enjoy listening to the entirety of a theme of tunes on one disc, I dare say that most people would prefer a little mix and match. With the advent of the computer, people can fashion their own CDs (people still use those, right?) from this fantastic arrangement, but something is lost in the majesty when one isn’t listening to the actual CD from the set. Unfortunately, no clean solution exists for the most fastidious among us. I mention this because those looking to drop a fair bit of coin for this rare collector’s item should know that the particular organization can be less than appealing, especially when listening to the overture from games I to IX over, and over, and over again.
Did I say rare? One might say that. Only 5000 copies of this stunning package exist in the world. Fortunately, someone’s always looking to sell at a higher price, so if you missed the boat on the 25th anniversary of Sugiyama’s genius, there is hope. This gem is certainly worth excavating if you love Dragon Quest music and orchestral renditions, and, most of all, are a die-hard collector. Even at its initial pricing (about $150 USD) the price is steep just for some music, but one should also keep in mind that a full orchestra performed this music. A final note: while technically different, several of these tracks strike strong similarities to previous symphonic works of the music. Thus, if you’ve invested in previous symphonic suites, you might be underwhelmed by what’s included in this set.
All logistics aside, one couldn’t ask for a better example of a truly “medieval” sound in the world of role-playing games. Though many may argue that the Dragon Quest series doesn’t have the best music in the gaming world, it certainly has a monopoly on crisp, professional, and neat production, and this is in part due to the Japanese approach to orchestral productions. At some points, I had honestly wondered if this was drawn up on a computer, because the work isn’t just a masterpiece – it’s perfect. What the music sometimes lacks in passion it more than makes up for in flawless timing, notes, and conducting. Yet, here I am again, leg bouncing and teeth firmly pressed on my bottom lip, pausing in between words that I type just so that I can fully enjoy a particularly powerful set of measures. Don’t misunderstand me: while the playing definitely lacks a certain emotional quality, Sugiyama’s composition demands your heart’s attention as it reminds you of childhood fantasies of adventure, travel, and thrills.
Replete with horns, strings, percussion, and woodwinds, the first disc contains all of the signature overtures and a few of the prologues. The oft overlooked Dragon Quest II debuts here with an eerie, yet peaceful rendition of its opening, which manifests into evil and doom half way through. Aptly named, Pastoral ~ Catastrophe communicates the mood of DQII’s opening excellently with the stark transition from uncertain comfort to destruction. Traveling with Wagon from DQVIII makes an appearance, as well. Unfortunately, like most of the DQVIII tracks in this box set, the sound is nearly identical. However, why change an already masterfully composed track? Truly, the prologues on disc one highlight what’s to come.
Equally brief at 36:23, the second disc exclusively features castle themes in all of their pomp and magnificence. Chateau Ladutorm introduces the disc splendidly with images of regalia, fine stone walls, and deep red banners hung alongside the court. Chateau, DQII’s theme, offers the same air, but with a different enough sound to warrant a full, calm listen. The famous Rondo makes its stately appearance soon after with the same royalty, yet prouder in its heavy use of violins and less drawn out notes. Fans shan’t be left wanting, lest this disc denigrates their ears with its arrogance. Dear listener, be careful that by the end of this disc your nose doesn’t reach for the ceiling amidst deep frowning.
Perhaps the nature of these finely orchestrated tracks demands a level of sophistication, though, since even the following disc has a tinge of aristocracy to it. Certainly, a track named “People” doesn’t warrant visions of crimson and gold. However, simplicity and humility come striding in on humble horse sans mount about two-thirds of the way through. Characterization aside, the strings caress the ears. Don’t be misled, however – the remainder of the disc features adequately meek music befitting towns and villages, such as the seventh track. Here, we hear the story of a woe-begotten village that just begs for interpretive dance. Never one to opt for sadness over jovial fun, Sugiyama’s seventh track’s 3:30 length pales in comparison to the next track’s bold 7:09. Celebratory in nature, DQVI’s featured theme cleanses the palette of the aforementioned hopelessness.
When I think of adventure from my childhood, two themes instantly come to mind: Kid Icarus’ main theme and Dragon Warrior I’s open world theme. Five years old, sitting in my underwear, Nintendo Power to my left, dad to my right helping me learn how to read in this pixelly, green world waiting for me to explore – I could do anything! Except go too far past the northern mountain, because then a ghost or magician would kill me. The Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra did a fantastic job with this short piece with its own adventurous, high-pitched violin peaking through on occasion. Points for style while remaining loyal to the source material. Although few can argue about the impact DQVIII had on the series in terms of presentation, some pieces stood out above the rest. In the fourteenth track we hear a familiar technique – lullaby-esque comforts replaced by jarring, heart-thromping battle music. Though few can be fooled by this melding of two tracks, one cannot overlook the powerful percussion at about 3:40 through the piece. Fans of DQVIII know this tune well, but with a slightly crisper sound, everyone should be pleased with its inclusion.
Limited torches, draining valuable MP with Radiant, labyrinthine caves, and towers that I keep accidentally falling off of for the eighth goddamn time come to mind with our next disc. Those stricken with PTSD may want to skip this one, throw it out of a fifth story window, or shred it (don’t ask me how), or just enjoy the music for what it is: atmosphere. As grindy as Dragon Quest can be, one way to stave off madness is with appropriate, appealing music. I’ve stated before in previous soundtrack reviews that an RPG composer’s hardest job is to make good battle music, because people will hear that plenty. In the world of Dragon Quest, the same goes for dungeon music, because Enix rarely skimped on a long, grueling excursion into mountainous depths with only a few herbs to back oneself up. A listen through this disc reminds us of awful memories and an age without save points. Though, doesn’t that speak strongly for the music? A few notes into the second track’s tower theme instantly reminded me of medusa heads, berserkers, and headless automatons. Similarly, the creepy, horror-grade track eleven – DQVII’s Screams from the Tower of Monsters – offers few screams and plenty of morbid intrigue. Do I dare go on?
To the sixth disc? Yes. After taking a respite from the red robes and golden goblets of the second disc, we return to righteousness with this series of religious tracks. The first track features Requiem from DQII, a unique piece compared to Sugiyama’s work overall. While the long, drawn out notes are nothing new to his composition, this piece contains all of the elements of a would-be somber track, yet it demands the listener’s respect. One might even choose to bow one’s head. The second track, Holy Shrine (DQII) transitions nicely, almost sounding like an amendment to the first track. Melding of works continues with the seventh track’s Sphinx ~ Mysterious Sanctuary from Dragon Quest VII. Although I’m no fan of Sphinx, Mysterious Sanctuary has a fantastically audacious, triumphant sound. If music had a diaphragm, one could easily expect to see its chest outreached with the long, booming notes.
Since we’re anthropomorphizing the music (okay, not you, but I am), one could expect the seventh disc to rock one to sleep in its arms in its whimsical, wave-like fashion. When nightmares of CDs with big, burly, hairy arms subside, enjoying the music here is quite a treat. Those less inclined toward cheery music should probably head elsewhere since these aren’t phantom ships we’re talking about, but the ones that can’t go over/through shoals (ugh). Though, since traveling is the theme, Heavenly Flight can be found on track three. Need I say more? Go listen to it. Now. Gogogo. Not to be (completely) outdone by Heavenly Flight, track twelve reminds us that DQVII was almost entirely ocean upon the game’s onset, so why shouldn’t it have an awesome theme? More ocean means better theme. That’s how it works, right? Although only 3:43 in length, the ample strings take us on a journey of – intrigue? Maybe some danger?
Since Sugiyama couldn’t fit almost ninety minutes of battle music on one disc, both the eighth and ninth disc contain what some people call the pinnacle of his work – the adrenaline-infused battle themes. Though simple in its conception, Dragon Quest’s battle music has made long strides with time. However, Sugiyama made sure that his first battle theme, track one, received a deep rendition befitting dracky slaying. Honestly, the reverberating cymbals make this piece. Even what I consider to be the strangest battle theme, DQV, received a respectable facelift in track eight.
The ninth disc, containing the battle themes for DQVI through IX, opens with a dedicated six minutes to DQVI’s boss theme. Perhaps the organization gets to me at this point, or I simply cannot take too much DQ battle music all in one go, but the themes run together a bit here. What I consider to be the weakest part of the box set, the battle music carries on a bit long. Sure, Dragon Quest offers some of the most epic, stimulating boss battles in the RPG library, but compared to other composers, Sugiyama cannot compete when doing battle and especially boss themes. DQIX contains some charm to it, for sure, but anyone who’s played a couple Dragon Quest games could tell that this is a DQ battle theme. Does that make them bad? Well, no, but variety seems to be lacking in style here. Sugiyama definitely has a sound that is uniquely his throughout the DQ series, but every town and overworld theme sounds different. Here, even with the help of one of the world’s best orchestras, the pieces are a bit lackluster.
Finally, the tenth disc opens with ending themes, some of the less often heard music from Dragon Quest. In terms of reworking, these tracks receive plenty. The first track, for instance add some pizzazz with percussion intertwined with the core of the theme. Of course, the additions sound fantastic, and enhance the experience. And what would ending themes be without a grandiose finality for the finality? DQIX’s sizable track receives one of the grandest conclusions on the disc. The horns create a false ending, only to be followed by a typical orchestral closing. Immediately succeeded by DQI’s inn theme when one goes to sleep. Remember that from DQIX? Neither do I, but they had to put miscellaneous sound effects somewhere for all of the collectors out there. Why not after the ending themes? Admittedly, these are fun to listen to once in a while, but they serve as a novelty, and won’t really make for good shuffling with the ending themes on the same disc. Though, an orchestral rendition of each sound effect can be amusing or impressive, depending on the material. For instance, track twenty-four. Am I waking up for military training? Nope, I just won the lottery! Fitting. Can you name where each sound effect came from? I can’t!
All organizational stress aside, this orchestral rendition of Sugiyama’s work not only remains loyal to the source material, but it takes judicious license that oftentimes improves on what many consider to be fantastic music. Of course, with Sugiyama behind the baton, what else can one expect? This review, while seemingly long, did not even scratch the surface of the treasures buried within. Those so inclined to purchase this intimidating collection of RPG music history will not be disappointed. Again, the price is steep – only the most devoted fan need purchase. A box set draws near! Command?